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Mueller's Office Disputes BuzzFeed Report; Pelosi: Trump Leaked Her Afghanistan Itinerary; U.S. Government Shutdown Showdown; Irish Backstop Remains Key Brexit Sticking Point; Interview with Ben Smith, BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief; China Accused of Tearing Minority Families Apart; Shark Sighting off Hawaii. Aired 4-5a ET

Aired January 19, 2019 - 04:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): In a rare move, special counsel Robert Mueller's office speaking out, disputing accuracy of a bombshell report by BuzzFeed News that implicates the president of the United States in a federal crime.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): The president says he will make a major announcement Saturday about the government shutdown and the southern border.

HOWELL (voice-over): A second summit confirmed between the U.S. president, Donald Trump, and the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.

ALLEN (voice-over): These stories are among the many we have this hour. Welcome to viewers in the U.S. and around the world, I'm Natalie Allen.

HOWELL (voice-over): I'm George Howell. NEWSROOM starts now.


HOWELL: At 4:00 am on the U.S. East Coast, we start with the report by BuzzFeed News that sparked talk of possible impeachment and obstruction of justice. It has prompted the office of special counsel Robert Mueller to offer a rare statement disputing that report's accuracy.

ALLEN: That surprised many people when the office did that. CNN has not corroborated the report alleging that President Trump directed his then attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow.

HOWELL: It is important to point out, the statement from Mueller's office did not say the BuzzFeed story was entirely wrong.

ALLEN: Here is what it says.

"BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the special counsel's office and characterization of documents and congressional testimony obtained by this office regarding Michael Cohen's testimony are not accurate."

HOWELL: BuzzFeed said it's been puzzled by Mueller's pushback, given the story was published almost 24 hours and Mueller's team didn't say specifically which part was inaccurate.

ALLEN: The editor-in-chief says this on Twitter, "We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it and we urge the special counsel to make clear what he is disputing."

Editor Ben Smith also spoke about it with CNN's Anderson Cooper.


BEN SMITH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, BUZZFEED: We spoke to, as we described, to federal law enforcement officials involved in the investigation. We're not playing again to that characterization, who told us that the president directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Do you know who those two sources are?

Because I know -- yes, this was two reporters.


SMITH: Do I know?


SMITH: Of course, I know.


SMITH: Yes. And, you know, and we've been reporting on the Trump Tower Moscow, which is at the heart of the Russia investigation, for months. We broke, you know, we broke stories about it before it was at the center of the Cohen indictment.

And that was Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier.

We hope that, with the special counsel release this, honestly, this vague statement disputing the piece and we really urge the special counsel to make it clear what he is disputing.


HOWELL: Again, BuzzFeed saying it is very challenging to make the correction when they don't know where the error is to start.

ALLEN: We have more from our media reporter, CNN's Brian Stelter.


BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: We are left with more questions than answers after the BuzzFeed report and now the statement from the special counsel's office. It is all quite confusing. And for people trying to figure out what

is true and what happened between President Trump and his aides and Russia, well, the mystery continues.

This statement from the special counsel's office certainly is not clear. It is saying that parts of the BuzzFeed story were not accurate but not saying what part specifically. It's caused a lot of frustration at BuzzFeed.

The digital news outlet, BuzzFeed, has been around for years. They have a big newsroom and has broken big stories, including some about Trump and the Russia investigation.

That's why this Thursday night story was taken so seriously and like so many other newsrooms, tried to follow up on it.

Now that the story has been challenged and disputed in part, this is a test for BuzzFeed's credibility and a test for the national media more broadly. Obviously, there are concerns about credibility here.

Already we are seeing President Trump and his allies use this issue, involving BuzzFeed, to tar and attack the media as a whole. No matter how many times the president calls news outlets fake, real outlets, real reporters are trying to get to the truth about Trump and Russia and that will continue no matter what.

This could be a severe blow to BuzzFeed's credibility. As for the two reporters who wrote the story on Thursday, Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier --


STELTER: -- Leopold has a checkered past, those are his own words by his own admission. He's broken some huge stories for BuzzFeed and he has an excellent track record with the website.

But back about 15 years ago, he was involved in several major scandals, he was accused of plagiarism and he was ousted from a job. By his own admission, he has a checkered past. Now the Republican National Committee is using that against him, saying he has a history of false reporting.

So once again, the cries about fake news get louder and louder while Americans and people around the world just want to know what really happened. For now, Robert Mueller is not saying -- Brian Stelter, CNN, New York.


HOWELL: Let's talk more about this with Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and former deputy assistant attorney general as well as Daniel Lippmann, a reporter for Politico.

Gentlemen, thank you for taking time to speak about this.

Harry, it is important to point out the statement from the special counsel did not say there's nothing to the story but rather takes a very specific response in describing it. Let's talk about the statement.

"BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the special counsel's office and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office regarding Michael Cohen's testimony are not accurate."

So when you see the way Mueller responded here, do you get a sense they are not entirely denying the greater story that's being alleged here?

HARRY LITMAN, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: I think that's exactly right. It's cryptic but it's much less than a full denial, indeed. It seems like the core of the story, not only not denying but holds up with the whole chronology and having had Cohen plead to this in the first place.

You then ask, why are they doing this cryptic and partial statement?

It's so out of character for the Mueller gang. And my best guess is there's some way in which -- I don't think they are trying to show themselves, that they follow the rules, everybody knows that. I think they are concerned that the great reaction that the BuzzFeed story provoked is somehow off base and people are galloping ahead in an imprudent direction.

HOWELL: Daniel, your thoughts on that question from a reporter's perspective.

DANIEL LIPPMAN, "POLITICO": I think they wanted to fix certain details of the story without discussing them in specifics. So BuzzFeed is under pressure to try to adjust their reporting, if anything is incorrect. But the special counsel was not very clear in saying whether the story was true or not.

You have a lot of senators and congressmen, who are reading this story, saying that if this proves to be true, this is very serious for Trump. Even Republicans say that it could lead to some consequences if proven accurate.

These reporters have done very good work in the past on this issue of the Trump Tower in Moscow.

HOWELL: Daniel, let's push forward on that a bit. You point out the reporters' history, their background. The reporters made it clear in the report, it was based on evidence including but beyond what Cohen had to say, citing two law enforcement officials involved in the investigation matter.

BuzzFeed continuing to back the accuracy of their reporting but looking into what the special counsel is disputing, remaining confident in the accuracy of what they are putting out there.

Overall, as other agencies try to track down the information. no one was able to confirm or corroborate what was in the report. LIPPMAN: Not as of yet but Michael Cohen's lawyers did not dispute the account. It will be interesting when he testifies on Capitol Hill. He will be asked about this.

You know, Democrats want to know from the horse's mouth if this is actually true, if President Trump instructed him to lie about the timing of all of these dealings.

You have a fact that -- or the allegation that Trump and Cohen had 10 sitdown meetings in 2016 about updates on this project. You know, there is some speculation that the sources were the FBI agents involved in the matter from the Southern District of New York, from that area, instead of Robert Mueller's team.

So Mueller could be saying, well, it's not coming from us. We are not doing leaks. But you have to look further afield and the FBI agents have all the evidence they have seized over the last --


LIPPMAN: -- year or two.

HOWELL: To your point, when Cohen testifies, it is important to point out there will be restrictions on what he is able to talk about. At the same time, it is interesting what he has to say.

Harry, this question to you touching on what Daniel pointed out here. It is incredibly rare to hear Mueller's office respond. But they weighed in on this BuzzFeed report that the president directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, essentially throwing water on this report.

Why did the special counsel feel the need to speak out?

LITMAN: You are right, it is incredibly rare. They have been the most tightlipped operation of their sort in history. That's why I think there's more here than simply trying to acquit themselves of any suggestion that they were the source, which BuzzFeed pretty well suggests they are not anywhere, not the exclusive ones.

And people are sort of pointing toward FBI, SDNY, these are people that we know were on the case before Mueller came.

I think, again, that they are -- that the public reaction lurched in a certain direction perhaps in terms of contemplating impeachment on the assumption that Trump had issued direct orders on paper or something like that.

And that is more than they actually have as proof. That's what "The New Yorker" is now suggesting and it might be that the basics of the story are true but it may be something as mild as Cohen wasn't getting direct instructions from Trump but was tailoring his conduct to his understanding of Trump's public statements, something like that.

But I think they are trying to caution people away from going too strong on the BuzzFeed story.

HOWELL: All right, Daniel Lippman and Harry Litman, again, both of you, thank you for your time and giving us the context on all of this.

LIPPMAN: Thank you.

LITMAN: Thanks.

ALLEN: Bottom line, at some point, Mueller's team will be finished.

HOWELL: They are tight-lipped for sure. It is rare to see them speak out.

ALLEN: The other big story we are tracking, this is day 29. I think you know what we are talking about, the government shutdown. The president says he is going to make a major announcement on it in the coming hours.

Officials say he's considering concessions to get Democrats to the table but likely won't budge on the southern border wall.

HOWELL: We expect that at 3:00 pm. Here is the thing, judging the public feud playing out between Mr. Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a deal may not come very easily. We have more from Abby Phillip on that story.


ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Shutdown negotiations now devolving from petty bickering and unfounded accusations between President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi today accusing the White House without any proof of leaking lawmakers' plans to travel to Afghanistan on a commercial flight after Trump yanked authorization for a government plane, forcing them to cancel.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CALIF.), HOUSE SPEAKER: We weren't going to go because we had reports from Afghanistan that the president outing our trip had made the scene on the ground much more dangerous because it's just a signal to the bad actors that were coming.

PHILLIP (voice-over): A White House aide firing back, calling the claims of a leak a flat-out lie. Trump, whose sources say has been frustrated the Democrats have the upper hand during the shutdown, calling Pelosi's trip to a war zone an "excursion," tweeting, "Why would Nancy Pelosi leave the country with other Democrats on a seven- day excursion when 800,000 great people are not getting paid?"

While one White House official called Trump's move to cancel Pelosi's trip retaliation against the Speaker's decision to postpone the State of the Union address, Pelosi is leaving it open to interpretation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you view this as retaliation for your letter about the State of the Union?

PELOSI: I hope not.

I don't think the president would be that petty, do you? PHILLIP (voice-over): Trump's campaign taking advantage of the food fight, asking supporters to donate money to send bricks for the border wall to Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer's office.

The president also tweeting without evidence that prayer rugs had been found at the border and resurrecting his claim that yet another caravan of Central American migrants is heading to the U.S. southern border.



PHILLIP (voice-over): As this drama unfolds, the shutdown continues with negotiations pushed to the back burner.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R): I think the mistake is that nobody is talking.

PHILLIP (voice-over): Abby Phillip, CNN, the White House.


HOWELL: Abby Phillip, thank you.

The U.S. partial shutdown is affecting former presidents of the United States as well. One of them taking it upon himself to deliver pizzas to the people around him who have been affected.

ALLEN: George W. Bush posted this photo on Instagram --


ALLEN: -- of him bringing his Secret Service detail some pizza. They are working also without pay until the situation is resolved. Mr. Bush called for lawmakers to put politics aside and end the shutdown.

The second summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will be late next month.

HOWELL: North Korea's top negotiator met with the U.S. secretary of state Friday in Washington, then met with the president of the United States for more than 90 minutes in the Oval Office.

The announcement is a day after President Trump rolled out a Pentagon report, saying North Korea is an extraordinary threat to the United States.

ALLEN: Let's bring in Matt Rivers. He is following this story and the developments from Beijing.

Hello to you, Matt.

There was a first summit.

Was there any real progress on denuclearization from that, that we know of?

MATT RIVERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: George and Natalie, I think it depends on your definition of progress but as outlined by the White House would revolve around the stated goal of North Korea denuclearizing or taking concrete, verifiable steps toward that end.

So far, we have seen zero verifiable steps toward North Korea denuclearizing, at least publicly. The only thing you can point to, if you were looking for something, would be that the North Koreans took reporters, a select number of reporters, including a CNN team, to witness the explosion of a tunnel in northern North Korea that they use to test nuclear devices.

What experts say is there was zero way to verify the tunnel was destroyed and, of course, our journalists on the ground couldn't verify that, either. That's really it. If that's not verified, there's a couple other good faith steps taken by the North Koreans, some hostages released.

You could point to the fact that they haven't tested any missiles recently. But neither of those point to denuclearization. I think, overall, if you are looking for concrete steps in the administration's own words, verifiable steps, since that summit, the answer is, there have not been any.

ALLEN: In announcing the second summit, did they announce any goals or talk about the agenda?

RIVERS: No. That's kind of the outstanding questions we have about this. Of course, this is an ongoing process. We wouldn't expect to have the entire agenda for the summit released. We don't even have the date or location. These are details being presumably being worked out by both sides.

But if we are looking for what could come out of the second summit from the U.S. standpoint, they would want some of those concrete steps.

But on the North Korean side, what critics have said about this second summit is perhaps the North Koreans feel they can get more concessions out of the United States by dealing directly with President Trump as opposed to the appointed negotiators, like the special envoy from the U.S. to North Korea, that they could get otherwise.

What you are looking at perhaps from the North Korean side is getting concessions from the United States without taking the steps toward denuclearization the United States would want them to.

I think overall, no one really knew what was going to come out of the first summit. I think anyone who tells you this is how the second summit is going to go, really would not be telling the whole truth. I don't think anyone knows exactly how a second summit would work out.

ALLEN: This is all new territory. Matt Rivers for us in Beijing, thank you, Matt.

HOWELL: Complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.

Have we seen that yet, the proof, and what comes out of that summit?

Still ahead, people living along the Irish border are looking for a backstop to take away some of the sting of Brexit.

But what is a backstop?

Why does it matter?

We'll explain that. Stay with us.






ALLEN: Welcome back.

In Mexico, at least 21 people were killed, 71 injured when a pipeline exploded.

HOWELL: This happening north of Mexico City. The state oil company says the blast was caused by the illegal tapping of the line for petrol last year. The fuel theft cost Mexico $3 billion. Several pipelines have been closed to crack down on it.

In the United Kingdom, British lawmakers debating the future of Brexit. The sticking point remains the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

ALLEN: One word we have been throwing around is backstop.


ALLEN: What the heck?

Well, it affects people on both sides of the border but here is what it means and what it means for them, from Nic Robertson.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: In a few months' time, this could be the E.U.'s last border with the U.K. It's giving rise to the most contentious issue in Brexit, the backstop.

When I say backstop, what does that mean to you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Backstop means basically it's an insurance policy that Theresa May and the European Union have taken out. ROBERTSON: In its simplest form, the backstop keeps the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open. Both the E.U. and the U.K. say they want that. But the E.U. insists the backstop is part of the deal, in case the two sides can't get an agreement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whatever is going to happen, it's going to impact on this city more than any other part of the U.K. or in any party of the E.U.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- because we are the biggest population center which will be in the U.K. on the border with the E.U. So whatever is going to happen, be it good or bad, is going to impact most here.

ROBERTSON: We are in Northern Ireland's second largest city, Londonderry, also known as Derry. A few miles from the border with Ireland. From the 1960s to the '90s, Derry was at the heart of Northern Ireland's deadly sectarian violence.


ROBERTSON: Twenty-something years ago, right here, as Catholic teenagers rushed up here to fight pitched battles with the mostly Protestant police. The 1998 peace deal has made all that feel like ancient history.

But that's what the backstop is about in part, to prevent a return to that sort of violence.

Is it going to work?

Better, because?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know what that's supposed to be like if it doesn't. (INAUDIBLE) was 25-30 years old.

ROBERTSON: You mean the violence?


ROBERTSON (voice-over): Concerns are growing. The backstop is blocking Brexit. Could bring back border controls.

What would happen if there's a no deal Brexit and to the border?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does it mean I have to show my passport or something to go down?

I don't know. I was like I was told that you'll have to show your passport or have a visa to go join over the border to visit family.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think a man on the street has any idea what is going to happen, especially with businesses. I'm working for a company that does a lot of cross-border trade. So they are particularly worried, in terms of taxes going back and forth over the border.

ROBERTSON: What would you hope for with the border yourself?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, we would obviously hope for the Schengen (ph) border, especially in this area. There's always been a strong relationship because we are a border area. So we would need free movement.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's very worrying. I don't know what the future is going to hold for myself, for my family and especially for my children.

ROBERTSON: The trouble for Theresa May is she needs the support of Northern Irish MPs who oppose the backstop. It makes them feel less British. So far, she hasn't found a way around it -- Nic Robertson, CNN, Derry, Northern Ireland.


ALLEN: All right, I think I've got it.

You think you have it?

HOWELL: I think we're getting there, yes.

ALLEN: All right.

Well, it was an explosive story but the editor of BuzzFeed now defends his reporters and their reporting. He tells CNN why his staff is puzzled by the pushback from this man, special counsel Robert Mueller, and why they are not entirely clear on what they supposedly got wrong. We'll explore that ahead here. Stay with us.





ALLEN: Welcome back to viewers in the U.S. and around the world, this is CNN NEWSROOM, I'm Natalie Allen.

HOWELL: I'm George Howell.


ALLEN: Back now to the BuzzFeed story. We know special counsel Robert Mueller had some issues with some of the reporting about Michael Cohen and President Trump. But we don't know exactly what part of the article he objected to.

BuzzFeed's editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, says it makes it very difficult to issue a correction or even to know if a correction is needed. He spoke with my colleague, Anderson Cooper, and his panel. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BEN SMITH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, BUZZFEED: Obviously, we stand by the reporting in the story. We spoke to, as we described, to federal law enforcement officials involved in the investigation. We're not planning to get into that characterization who told us that the president directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.

COOPER: Do you know who those two sources are?

Because I know -- yes, this was two reporters.


SMITH: Do I know?


SMITH: Of course, I know.


SMITH: Yes. And, you know, and we've been reporting on the Trump Tower Moscow, which is at the heart of the Russia investigation, for months. We broke, you know, we broke stories about it before it was at the center of the Cohen indictment. And that was Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier.

We hope that, with the special counsel release this, honestly, this vague statement disputing the piece and we really urge the special counsel to make it clear what he is disputing.

COOPER: When you say it's a vague statement, I just want to read for our viewers what the special counsel said.

They said, "BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the special counsel's office and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office regarding Michael Cohen's congressional testimony are not accurate."

We were pointing out earlier in the program, it's wrong to characterize this as knocking down the story entirely. But there are certainly -- I mean, it's a very specifically worded statement from them.

SMITH: Yes, absolutely. And, you know, they are obviously some of the best lawyers in America and they are clearly referring to something. And we hope that they will tell us what they are referring to. I mean, I think at this point, it's very -- that we would hope that they would clarify that.

COOPER: But you know, it is highly unlikely that they would clarify a statement that -- I mean, took them, you know, some 20 or so hours to come out with.

Are you actually expecting them to make another statement to clarify? Because, you know, Preet Bharara earlier was saying, that's highly


SMITH: I mean, I think that would be the responsible thing for them to do, yes.

COOPER: Do you have any belief that --


SMITH: But, you know, but that's what we and everybody else are continuing to report on this. And so I'm hopeful that, you know, more of the facts will come out regardless. But, yes, we think to -- but, yes, they have issued the statement that makes clear that they are disputing something in the story and does not say what.

COOPER: Do you have any doubts at this point about the story, about what you have reported?

I know you're saying you stand by it.

Are there specific areas you have doubts about or any doubts?

SMITH: We're really confident in these specific sources and in the story the reporters told.

COOPER: Ben, I think Brian Stelter has a question for you.

STELTER: Ben, earlier today the Republican National Committee challenged one of the two reporters, Jason Leopold, said he has a history of false reporting. I know he's had a great track record for you, working for you.

But are you concerned at all about the histories of your reporters being questioned and their work being questioned?

SMITH: Thanks for the question, Brian. And, I mean, I think that, you know, when we saw the Republican National Committee launching ad hominem --


SMITH: -- attacks on the reporters in the story, that struck us as a -- you know, that's something you typically do when you don't have a better response. And, you know, and we did not see the kind of strong and detailed denial or anything like them that you might have expected.

Instead, we saw ad hominem attacks on Jason, you know, who was a Pulitzer finalist two years ago for reporting on a series of assassinations in Russia, who is one of, you know, who's the leading practitioner of FOIA in the United States and his work included revealing Hillary Clinton's e-mails.

And so I think it's ludicrous to go back and, you know, dredge around stuff, you know, stories from 15 years ago that are absolutely, you know, real, that he wrote about back then.

STELTER: Right. And people wonder sometimes if there -- in this partisan-polarized age of anti-Trump bias, reporters' own opinions creep into the coverage in something like this.

You might hear something from a source and you want it to be true.

Did that happen do you think in this case?

SMITH: No, absolutely not. And the last time Jason was being accused of things like this, it was when his reporting revealed Hillary Clinton's e-mails and it was coming from the other side.


Is it unnerving to you that so many other reporters are chasing this story and no one has come up with anything like what you have come up with?

SMITH: You know, I don't -- I think I don't -- I'm not sure I know that to be true. But certainly everybody is chasing this. Everybody is chasing it carefully and trying to confirm it. We'll, I assume, see over the next couple of days where our reporting and where everybody else's reporting advances it.

TOOBIN: I mean, we all love to have scoops, but isn't it nervous making that you are out there by yourself on a story that lots and lots of very good reporters are covering?

SMITH: You know, the specifics of this story grew out of a story that we've been out, way out in front exclusively on, which is that the Moscow project, which is a somewhat different line of inquiry. And Jason and Anthony have been through this whole process at times, pretty far out on somewhat separate lines of inquiries than everybody else.

You know, but obviously, these facts are true or either false and we will all get to the bottom of this. I think the special counsel could immediately make clear what in the story he's disputing that would make it easier for everybody to stand it up. But I think we are very confident in the reporting.

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Hi, Ben, it's Preet Bharara, taking my shot at a question, too.

Do you have a complaint with respect to the special counsel in the following respect?

And if you can say, maybe you can't say, but usually and often, at least with respect to these kinds of articles, you would have said to the special counsel's office, in advance of the publication of the article, we plan to report the following, that the President of the United States directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.

What do you think about that? And some offices will wave you off if they think it's outrageous and mischaracterizes the facts beforehand or you work it out in a way that's appropriate for both the media institution and also the special counsel's office or maybe that the type that never response to any kind of inquiry ever and then 20 hours after you issued the story, they put out this statement.

Do you have any complaint with respect to how this came out in that respect?

SMITH: You know, I think it probably wouldn't be appropriate for me to say whether one office or the other has a habit of waving people off and waving people on. I do think what they did here is just extremely confusing.

COOPER: Confusing in what way?

SMITH: To all of us. I mean, confusing that it's not -- that, you know, a day after a story is published they come out with this very -- both a very detailed and very opaque statement disputing it.

TOOBIN: Are you concerned -- frankly, I'm concerned that when you -- over the next few months, whenever there's a hot story, a big scoop that comes out, you're going to hear from the president and his supporters, "Oh, it's another BuzzFeed story. It's another story like BuzzFeed, where, you know, even Robert Mueller said it was false."

Do you worry that that's going to damage all of us?

SMITH: I mean, you know, we are, like I think most of our colleagues, very focused on doing the reporting and getting it right and that's pretty much all we can do.

COOPER: So now, right now, you have reporters out there trying to, what, go back to sources, follow up on this?

I assume you have everybody trying to follow up on this.

SMITH: Yes, absolutely.

COOPER: Ben Smith, I appreciate you -- talking to you. Thank you very much.

SMITH: Thank you.


HOWELL: Ever since Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel, he's been on the receiving end of countless Twitter attacks by President Trump. That's not the case now.

ALLEN: Right, not now. The president's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, is now praising Mueller, tweeting, "I commend Bob Mueller's office for correcting the BuzzFeed false story that President Trump encouraged Cohen to lie."

HOWELL: U.S. lawmakers aim to hold China accountable --


HOWELL: -- for the detention of Uyghur minorities. Up next, the Uyghur refugee that describes to CNN the horror she experienced after being detained.




HOWELL: Here at CNN, we have been following the sudden and, at times, unexplained disappearance of the Muslim Uyghur minority in China.

ALLEN: The U.S. says as many as 2 million have been detained in the past 1.5 years. American lawmakers have reintroduced a bill to hold China accountable. CNN's Ivan Watson met with Uyghurs in the U.S. who have lost relatives, including their children.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There's a lot of love in this apartment in Virginia between a mother and her children, with something, someone actually, is missing here.

In 2015, ethnic Uyghur Mihrigul Tursun, then a citizen of China, gave birth to triplets in Egypt where she had been living and working. Barely a month later, she flew home with them. At the airport she says Chinese police detained her and took away her babies.


Please give me my baby. Then he --

WATSON (on camera): Taped your mouth.


WATSON (voice-over): Mihrigul says police jailed and interrogated her for the next three months. The day of her release, she went to the children's hospital in Xinjiang (ph) to see her infant.

TURSUN: When I come to hospital, doctor say, OK, my baby can go outside hospital?

He say, yes, he die.

I looked at him.

What? What die?

He say, your son die, yesterday morning at 6:00.

I don't believe. And I scream, why you kill my son? They say --


TURSUN: -- if you scream, I call police. Stop. Be quiet.

And they give me my baby so cold.

I say, why he die?

What happened?

He say, we make operation and he cannot strong. So he die.

WATSON: CNN reached for comment from children's hospital, but did not receive a response.

The surviving siblings have scars on their necks. A CNN medical expert says that suggests they, like their deceased brother, received intravenous tubes for a nutrition at a time they should have been breastfeeding.

Mihrigul says her son's death was the beginning of a three-year nightmare during which she was jailed and tortured.

TURSUN: They ask questions. When I say I don't know, they start, beat me so hard.

WATSON: During the second imprisonment, she says she was put in a crowded cell with 50 other women, all Uyghur from her hometown in Xinjiang (ph).

TURSUN: Someone is my doctor, someone is my middle school teacher. Someone are neighbor. All the people, 80 percent I know.

WATSON: The U.S. government alleges this is part of a much larger, frightening pattern.

SCOTT BUSBY, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: Since April 2017, Chinese authorities have indefinitely detained at least 800,000 and possibly more than two million Uyghurs, ethic Kazakhs and members of other Muslim minorities in internment camps.

WATSON: Beijing has gone from denying these alleged mass detentions to saying prisoners are getting vocational training. Authorities recently took some diplomats and journalists on a carefully supervised tour of some of these facilities. Some detainees told journalists the camps reeducate them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now do you understand?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): All of us found we have something wrong with ourselves and luckily enough, the communist party and the government offer this kind of school to us for free. WATSON: The climate of fear in Xinjiang can be felt halfway around the world.

ARFAT AERIKEN, UYGHUR REFUGEE: I lost contact with my family in 2017.

WATSON (on camera): That was the last time you heard your mother's voice?


WATSON: And your father?


WATSON (voice-over): Twenty-one-year-old Arfat Aeriken came to the U.S. three years ago to get a university education. But, gradually, his parents stopped sending tuition money and stopped calling him. Then last September, Arfat made this desperate appeal on YouTube.

AERIKEN: I have confirmed that my father sentenced to nine year in prison and my mom is in concentration camps.

WATSON (on camera): If both of your parents are detained, who's taking care of your 10-year-old brother?

AERIKEN: I don't know.

WATSON: If you could say something to your parents, what would you say?

AERIKEN: I hope they're just alive.

WATSON (voice-over): Afraid to go home, Arfat has since been granted asylum in the U.S. Many Uyghur students are similarly stranded here.

SEAN ROBERTS, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: They are terrified because they don't know what to do. They don't want to declare asylum in the United States because that reflects badly on their family. But they've also been getting messages from the region that they shouldn't come back because they will definitely be put in one of these internment camps.

WATSON: During her incarceration, Mihrigul Tursun claims she saw fellow prisoners die in detention.

TURSUN: In this same room, nine women die, I see. So, so much people die, have torture like, I become crazy.

WATSON: The Chinese government denounces criticism of its human rights records, saying these preventative counterterrorism measures protect more people from being devoured by extremism.

Mihrigul and her children are now in the U.S. going through the asylum process, but it's not easy. Three-year-old suffers chronic asthma attacks and Mihrigul can't afford a pediatrician. One day, she tells me, she'll tell her surviving children that the Chinese government killed their brother -- Ivan Watson, CNN, Washington.


HOWELL: CNN reached out to regional authorities several times looking for comment and has not received a response.

ALLEN: A series of storms moving across the U.S. Millions of people are under a winter weather alert, preparing for ice and snow. We have the forecast next.






ALLEN: It's winter and large parts of the U.S. are bracing for severe weather. Millions are under some form of a winter storm alert with large amounts of snow and ice expected through the weekend.

HOWELL: Travel already affected. Nearly 2,000 flights already canceled, according to a flight tracking site,



HOWELL: Before we go, a rare sighting of one of the world's largest sharks off Hawaii. The great white, known as Deep Blue, is 20 feet or about six meters long and is believed to be more than 50 years old. Incredibly, divers in that area calmly swam close to it.

ALLEN: My mouth is agape. I can't breathe.

Deep Blue has a Twitter account named for her and was last spotted in Mexico in July. She is enjoying life.

HOWELL: Would you do that?

ALLEN: I would not.


ALLEN: The day's top stories are just ahead here. I'm Natalie Allen.

HOWELL: I'm George Howell. More news after the break.